Editor's Notes: Placing the blame

Under-pressure Olmert's robust mood, a tribute to national soccer and a Pessach prayer for the freedom of all those held unjustly.

Among the striking themes of our interview today with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was his readiness to speak in more detail than in the past about the planning for, and problems of, last summer's war against Hizbullah. Whereas in our last interview, before Rosh Hashana, Olmert preferred to stay silent on matters about which he had yet to testify before those investigating the war, this time the prime minister was more forthcoming. And more trenchant - with those (unnamed) politicians and military leaders who in past years had overseen the training of the army, and the wider defense policy on Lebanon, coming in for particular criticism. Two particular comments stand out in this context. Asked whether he had any regrets about not sending ground forces as far north as was necessary in Lebanon to reach the launching sites of the Katyushas, the prime minister said a firm no, and briefly sketched, as one explanation, a depressing picture of what might have ensued: "Considering the performance, the failure that we have gone through," he said, "you can imagine how a lot more difficult it could have been had we started with ground forces going all the way." Then, talking about the death toll in the conflict, he asserted that, had he not given the orders to fight last summer, many more lives might later have been lost, "as a result of the negligence and the indifference which has characterized the policy of Israel toward the south of Lebanon for so many years." Olmert was in a robust mood during our lengthy interview, insisting that his awful popularity levels don't faze him, and that the only polls that will really matter are those he'll face when bidding for re-election, "in 2010," as he put it. Plainly, he does not expect to be forced out by the findings and recommendations of the Winograd Commission. And plainly, too, a central plank of his testimony is that, as a fresh prime minister last year, he cannot be held responsible for failures that long predated his time in office. Inescapably, however, that defense centrally, though by no means solely, implicates the man on whose coattails Olmert unexpectedly came into office, his predecessor Ariel Sharon. And Sharon, of course, is in no position to testify to Winograd, or anybody else. In praise of national soccer At one of the last English soccer games I attended before coming on aliya, one unfortunate in the crowd got hit in the face with a dart, fans of the visiting team were escorted to and from the ground under police protection, and the language employed in the chanting from the terraces would have made a merchant seaman blush. I know that things have improved since then, but they've still got a way to go, I'd guess, before they match the overall hospitable atmosphere afforded to Israel's opponents in its last three international matches at Ramat Gan. Those games ended in defeat for the home team against Croatia, a draw with England and, on Wednesday, an emphatic victory against Estonia. At both the Croatia and the England games, however, Israel's performance on the field notwithstanding, fans of the opposing side were made to feel welcome, and they reciprocated. (The same presumably applied with the Estonia fans; it's just that I didn't actually see any.) Croatian supporters, festooned in red and white check, sat side-by-side with Israelis during the game and mingled with the departing crowd afterwards, unthreatened even though their players had inflicted a damaging defeat on ours. The much-stereotyped drunken English hooligans turned out to be anything but. They supplied a charming pre-match photograph or two, with one particular genial, bare-chested and heavily-stomached beer-drinking gentleman to the fore. But they were a veritable study in sobriety at the ground - a condition they probably regretted given their team's pitiful display - and, again, were able to mix easily in a festive atmosphere at Ramat Gan that belied the uninspired game itself. I was so impressed by the relaxed atmosphere at those matches, indeed, that I took a couple of quite young children to the Wednesday game against Estonia, confident, and rightly so, that the experience would be pleasurable rather than terrifying. I couldn't have taken them so confidently to many of our local soccer fixtures, where hostility between rival fans can be toxic. Moreover, I'd be worried about safety, too. Regular attendees at crowded Betar Jerusalem games, for instance, warn that the entrance and security procedures, in contrast to Ramat Gan, are a nightmare, and that crowd build-up at the entrances carries the real risk of the kind of crush disaster that has seen lives lost in several stadium tragedies around the world in recent years - not to mention at our Arad music festival in 1995. I only have two, mild, reservations about the national team fixtures. First, might not the organizers who proved so capable of using the loudspeakers at Ramat Gan to identify goal scorers and yellow-card offenders also use the system to implant some fresh crowd chants? "Yisrael, Milhama!" - "Israel, War!" - hardly accords with the Foreign Ministry's earnest new effort to brand our country as a Middle East oasis of tolerance. Nor, for that matter, does it much reflect the delicate brand of soccer now emblematized on the field by the sensitive talents of our star performers, Yossi Benayoun and new hero Ben Sahar. And second, still on the subject of image, we had a letter in the Post earlier this week lamenting that someone filched the world-traveled England Supporters Club banner from the stadium at last week's game - a memento of considerable sentimental value. If whoever took it doesn't come clean, surely closed circuit TV must have captured the culprits. Let our people go BBC correspondent Alan Johnston has been missing, kidnapped, in Gaza for two-and-a-half weeks. At first, the official British attitude was to try and work through back channels to secure his freedom - a minimum of public fuss, and lots of behind-the-scenes pressure. The same approach was employed initially when 15 British sailors were taken captive by Iran a few days ago - diplomatic pressure, leverage, no weeping - for all the world as if this were an isolated incident, a misunderstanding, rather than the latest example of Iranian regional emboldenment. The families also went along. The British Foreign Office liaised with the relatives, advising them that the "softly, softly" approach was best, and that they had nothing to gain, and potentially a great deal to lose, if they went public and turned the issue into an emotional, personal drama. The British media played ball, too. There were no massed TV crews camped out on the families' lawns, Israel-style. No tearful interviews in the dailies. Heaven forbid, as one senior British journalist said to me, that harm come to one or more of the prisoners because of incautious media coverage. It all made quite a contrast with the acutely personal media saturation accorded to our various past and current MIAs and kidnap victims. The minute the name of a victim is made public, the camera crews start running for the relevant home, and the pressure is on the families to talk. Many are reluctant, at first. But generally the thinking seems to be that the more publicity the better - in part to ensure that the government is goaded into action, and that we come to identify sufficiently with the victims as to endorse going to the greatest lengths, and paying even the most asymmetrical of prices, for their return. For the British, though, things have changed as the days have ticked by. While the Blair government would not publicize the personal dramas of the 15 captives, the Iranians insistently made the saga personal, naming, photographing and filming their only female captive, Faye Turney, and thus prompting a media convergence on her family back home, and airing video of the other captives as well. And since quiet diplomacy has failed to secure Alan Johnston's speedy release, the BBC has been highlighting his capture and plight more prominently of late, with satellite links and rallies. Two cases, perhaps, of the British stiff upper lip bruised by the harsh realities of this neighborhood, where what should be elementary humanity repeatedly and dismally proves anything but elementary. A Pessah prayer for the freedom of all those held unjustly.